Destination of the Month – Karakol and Lake Issyk-Kul

Howdy all and it’s another Sunday for you! Today it’s the first ‘Destination of the Month’ for you, and I am sticking to what I know, and that’s places I have been, and today it’s Central Asia again for you and the country in question is Kyrgyzstan. Where abouts is our destination? Well, it’s a few hours east of the delightful capital of Bishkek, the Lake Issyk-Kul and the town to the far east of it, another hour or two along the north or south road of the lake, Karakol.

I’ve chose Kyrgyzstan because right now it’s one of three Central Asian countries open to tourists. Turkmenistan went quickly into hibernation at the first sign of Covid and Kazakhstan is also closed, with its own internal issues flaring of late, leaving Tajikistan (which I featured on last Sunday’s $100 challenge), Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan!

Let’s start with the lake. I didn’t personally stop at the lake perse, but in summer it is the place to play in Kyrgyzstan and I drove over the top of it and back from Bishkek to Karakol return. This is a serious lake, in fact it’s width is 170km and across the other way it’s around 70km at its widest. It may be at 1600 metres from sea level, but in the summer it’s still a place the Kyrgyz and Kazakh people flock to swim and enjoy water sports.

Perhaps one of the reasons it’s used for swimming is that in parts of the deep lake there is geo-thermal activity which keeps the water warmer than it might normally be. The day time air temperature in Cholpon-Ata is on average 28 degrees Celsius in July, this is the main tourist town on the lake, so it’s pretty decent summer weather with the Ala-Too Mountain Range as the backdrop, sitting on each side of the border between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. So it’s a beautiful location although summer will also bring the crowds.

I visited in May I think it was, second half, and I passed through Cholton-Ata and saw the Ferris Wheel there, but it was still a quiet town waiting for the crowds to arrive. For me hard to imagine the summer with the town packed and the jet skis zooming around on the water, but the lake is beautiful and the perfect summer spot. Plenty of other towns too around the lake, the north side is the busier and more popular side but there are loads of little towns on the south that might be a little quieter and worth checking out.

Being a land-locked country, Issyk-Kul is the closest Kyrgyzstan gets to a beach (albeit rocky from the bits I saw), and so if you’re in the region looking for seaside fun, this is it! I think it is one of the biggest freshwater lakes on the planet too, so it’s fairly significant!

The biggest town anywhere near the lake is Karakol, with a population over 70,000 at the foot of the mountains which are brilliant for hiking. It’s a town in a stunning setting and has a distinctly Russian feel to it as well. In the winter it’s a gateway to (according to my trusty guide book) some of the best skiing in Central Asia. I was there in May though, and I don’t think I saw any snow except on the far-off mountain peaks.

Karakol is a great little base for you to attempt day trips, hiking and general adventures of a mountain variety. You can access the lake if you go the 12km ish to Pristin which sits on an inlet and from there you can hop on a sunset cruise perhaps to enjoy the lake.

But the town is fascinating to walk around with its wooden Russian houses from another era, dirt roads (on a few are sealed) and it really does have a special sort of atmosphere. Homestays are easy to come by too, I paid around $12USD a night or maybe less (shared room) and had some wonderful hospitality in Karakol. There’s a mosque, a beautiful wooden Orthodox church and on the whole some really interesting architecture.

And the there are day trips (mine lost two hours when the taxi’s tyre got flat and he didn’t have a replacement). If you want to head out to the famous ‘Broken Heart Rock’, it’s easy enough to book a taxi for not too much (check for the spare before you leave Karakol). The whole region is just breath taking. The Broken Heart Rock is around 25km to the south-east of Karakol by road, at the entrance to the valley of the Flowers before the Jeti-Oguz Sanitorium. There is a hike of a few days to my favourite spot, Altyn Arashan.

However, I went there via jeep from Karakol. The road – it’s a track, not a road, so you need some sort of organised transport up unless you hike which would take the best part of a day. I did hike back to Karakol due to lack of transport options, but down is never as hard work as up! It’s this gorgeous spot with mountain peaks surrounding it, a bit of a sauna/spa, but it’s also fairly primitive and when I was there I stayed in the Yak Tours Shack, electricity provided by car battery. I suspect there is a bit more development there now, but if going be prepared to rough it. From Altyn Arashan you can hike to some of the peaks and to a glacier too.

The hiking possibilities around Karakol are endless, and there are plenty of agencies who can help you out based in Karakol and provide transport and guides if need be. This is where Central Asia has an identity crisis and thinks it’s Switzerland! If you’re a keen hiker and want to explore a part of the world few westerners get to, well this region around Karakol might just be for you!

Thanks for joining me today! Take care wherever you might be on this big ol’ planet of ours, and May the Journey Never End!

4 thoughts on “Destination of the Month – Karakol and Lake Issyk-Kul

  1. Thank you for this beautiful introduction to this little known country. Actually it is difficult to memorize all these Stans and their specificities. But it is true that this part of Asia remains a black hole of international tourism while being attractive.

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